Vlad Mihail SAULEA*
Motto: ”We must respect the past and mistrust the present, if we wish to provide for the safety of our future.”
Abstract. Creşterea fără precedent a instabilităţii geopolitice internaţionale, imposibilitatea predictibilităţii atacurilor grupurilor teroriste şi dificultatea ţinerii sub control a acestora creează un climat global în care îmbunătăţirea măsurilor de securitate devine o nevoie de bază a societăţii, pe care statele o satisfac cu dificultate crescândă. Riscurile actuale afectează inclusiv transportul aerian şi asigurarea securităţii acestuia.
The evolution and growth of the society in virtually every aspect of it comes along with an ever expanding need for people to travel. Given the fact that there are plenty of alternatives to choose from, the ones being the fastest will be of superior interest above others. According to The World Bank, 3.441 billion people have chosen to travel by air in 2015. These numbers are steadily growing, with no regression patterns predicted in the near future. Governments and organizations are tackling this reality very seriously and are investing enormous amounts of resources into this industry.
Being under constant change and existing within all the economies of the planet, air transportation is vast and can easily be influenced by numerous phenomena, geopolitical instability being one of them. Geopolitical instability is a phenomenon which concerns how geography and economics influence politics and relationships between nations. Specialists suggest that regional dynamics are subordinate to greater global trends.
In order to understand some of the risks of air transport at the present, some important aspects of the geopolitical situation on the planet must be mentioned. Governments are apparently dealing with a high state of insecurity and are facing chaotic phenomena across the globe. ”Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world again faces the risk of major conflict between states,” said Margareta Drzeniek-Hanouz, lead economist at the World Economic Forum.
Geopolitical instability is most likely to occur in poor countries. Studies show that there is a close relationship between countries that are politically unstable and economic growth. Countries with a high tendency of government collapse present a drastically lower growth than otherwise. Low growth within a society increases the people’s dissatisfaction and creates motives for anti-government actions.
”On one hand, the uncertainty associated with an unstable political environment may reduce investment and the speed of economic development. On the other hand, poor economic performance may lead to government collapse and political unrest. A different argument leading to a similar relation between political instability and growth is implied by Grossman’s (1991) analysis of revolutions. In countries where rulers are relatively weak, i.e. more easily overthrown, the probability of revolutions is higher and the citizens have higher incentives to engage in revolutionary activities rather than productive market activities.”
Terrorism is closely linked to geopolitical instability and has connections with aspects such as low level per capita income, high levels of illiteracy, low life expectancy and lack of employment opportunities, all of these triggering feelings of indignity and frustration among individuals that eventually lead to all sorts of deliberately offensive types of behaviors. Even though there are links between poverty and the birth of terrorism, it has not been proven that poverty is the root cause.
According to the ‘Failed States Index’ and their ‘Heatmap’, today’s most insecure areas that are confronting with dangerous geopolitical instability are Middle East, Africa, and South Asia with countries being categorized as ‘dangerously unstable’. Coincidence or not, these areas contain some of the states with the most unsustainable economies on the planet, and the birthplaces of the most dangerous and active terrorist organizations. Studies show that the most important driver of the terrorist organizations in recent years has become religious extremism.
The ongoing conflicts in these areas mentioned earlier are complex and security analysts say that given their pattern in the present, will remain consistent in the near future and instability will persist. From the Western criminal violence in the State of Mexico, to the hotspots of high interest, such as the unchanging territorial dispute type of conflict in Ukraine, the worsening war against the Islamic State in Iraq, the Boko Haram in Nigeria or the North Korean Crisis, all of these have global impact on all activities on Earth.
TERRORISM AND THE THREAT IT POSES TO AIR TRANSPORTATION
Ever since the growth of terrorist organizations, they have presented a particular interest for using aircraft as a mean of propaganda. The unlawful seizure of an aircraft by a terrorist organization, or hijacking, used to be one of the most efficient ways for such entities to show what they can actually do. The primary purpose of a hijacking is a financial gain in exchange for hostages. The terrorist act empowers the organization responsible for it and has an important effect upon the public: widespread fear. Therefore, it represents a strong psychological weapon and one of the most important features of it is unpredictability. Not knowing when it is most likely to occur and hardly being able to judge when the public is safe or at risk are sources of constant vulnerability.
The constant development of urban environments across the globe makes it very hard to prevent terrorist acts. A sole terrorist act in a highly crowded area is relatively easy to plan and execute and does not need a highly accurate apparatus. Frightening or even worse, harming a vast number of people is easily achievable, with a very recent example of such simple, yet effective act from the point of view of spreading fear and creating casualities being the July 2016 Nice attack, when 84 people were killed and 303 injured when a 19 tons cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day.
The interdependency of so many systems on the planet, such as communication, utilities and transportation makes today’s society an ever unsafe environment with an increasing risk of terrorist attacks likely to happen.
There are many challenges when talking about keeping the air transportation safe. Not only in Europe, but across the globe, issues such as volatility of oil prices, airport congestion, capacity limitations, territorial conflicts and many other factors are taken into account. Enforcing security in an air transport system starts ‘from the ground up’. ”Airport security attempts to prevent any threats or potentially dangerous situations from arising or entering the country. If airport security does succeed in this, then the chances of any dangerous situations, illegal items or threats entering into both aircraft, country or airport are greatly reduced.” It has become tighter than ever after the September 11 attacks and it represents the first filter that any air traveller or freight must pass before boarding or being loaded in any commercial flight. Unfortunately, the security of airports around the world hasn’t yet achieved a uniform state and it is still false to say that all airports are safe. There are still huge differences in security tackling. Studies regarding drug, gun and other merchandise smuggling across country borders show billion dollar active markets that use aircraft as the main transportation means.
The high density of people in an airport terminal and possible security breaches represent two major factors that increase the likelihood for a terrorist attack to take place. The first one leads to an easily achievable high casualty number and the second one facilitates the completion of the terrorist attack. That is why trying to decongest the terminals by assuring a smooth passenger flux and imposing high security levels are the two most important measures for keeping an airport safe.
Also, on the ground conflicts such as wars are known to have disturbed the safety or normality of the air transport in numerous occasions. Starting with the fact that even if flights over an unstable area are not prohibited but potential passengers are simply afraid to travel there and do not pay for tickets, thus reducing airline’s incomes and forcing it to increase prices to the point where it leads to discontinuing the service for a certain route and ending with the real danger of an aircraft to be intentionally or unintentionally shot down, the fact that terrorist attacks are more likely during war time is taken in consideration when assessing the safety of a flight route over these kinds of areas.
The amplitude of every single conflict affects the security of air transportation and the organization in charge of imposing restrictions or prohibitions on certain airspace areas reacts accordingly. For example, the airspace above Donetsk Oblast was closed by UkSATSE (Ukrainian Air Traffic Service) below 32,000 feet on 14 July 2014, given the instability on the ground and the presence of military personnel and equipment. Soon after the closing of the airspace, the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17/MAS17) from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down and crashed 40 km from the Ukrainian Border.
AIR TRANSPORT ACCIDENT STATISTICS AND TRENDS
At one time, rigidity characterized the air transportation, but now it is undergoing transformations towards the capacity of accommodating a wide range of possible futures. Following this trend forces the system to be more reactive than ever to any incoming changes or variations. According to EUROCONTROL, ‘Even the worldwide impact of such conflicts as the Gulf War of 1991 and even the events of 11 September 2001 have depressed air traffic for several months only. As a result, future air traffic growth tends to be accepted as a certainty.’
The number of passengers carried by plane, as recorded by the International Civil Aviation Authority, proves the prognosed steady increase. An estimate of 1.674 billion passengers were carried in the year 2000, 2.208 billion in 2008 and 3.441 billion in 2015.
Statistics source: ICAO Safety Report 2016
The two charts below show the fatal accidents trend and number of fatalities trend:
”Commercial airliners as well as cargo aircraft have been the subject of plots or attacked by bombs and fire since the near the start of air travel. Many early bombings were suicides or schemes for insurance money, but in the latter part of the 20th century, political and religious militant terrorism became the dominant motive for attacking large jets.” One documented list describes 86 cases which are related to airliner bombings, 53 of them resulting in deaths. As well, deliberate or unintentional shootdown incidents have been recorded. It is important to mention that the shootdown incidents occurred while flying over unstable areas where war was undergoing and the aircraft have been brought down by gunfire or missile attacks. The first incident of this type was recorded in 1938 and it is ”believed to be the first commercial passenger plane destroyed by hostile forces.” A China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) aircraft was forced down by a Japanese aircraft in Chinese territory. The CNAC aircraft was shot down by the Japanese aircraft while trying an emergency water landing in order to avoid the attack. 15 people died then. The latest recorded shootdown to date is the 2014 Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 when a Boeing 777-200ERflying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was hit by a Russian produced surface-to-air missile over the skies of Ukraine, near Donetsk, with a death toll of 283 people.
The fact that such incidents happened in recent years represents the strong proof that this kind of flight scenario is a real threat towards the air transportation.
The interconnectivity of so many systems on the planet represents a rather vulnerable entity and every single disruption from the normal activity has destructive effects. Geopolitical instability increase across the globe reflects an actual climate that requires unprecedented attention from the point of view of security enforcing. States are acting accordingly and are facing a greater than ever challenge regarding assuring protection for their citizens. All systems, including air transportation must be prepared for any difficulties that may arise concerning security incidents. Based on today’s security air transportation scaffolding, the industry is heading towards a future without any life threatening occurrences.
* student, Facultatea de Inginerie Spaţială, Universitatea Politehnică Bucureşti
 Alberto Alesina, Sule Özler, Nouriel Roubini, Philip Swagel, Political Instability and Economic Growth, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge MA, 1992
 ”Statement” of Monte R. Belger, Acting Deputy Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Before the Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information, on Security Technology, United States Senate, November 14, 2001
 Aerospaceweb.org – ”Ask Us – Commercial Airline Bombing History”. 17 December 2014
 Gregory Crouch (2012). ”Chapter 13: The Kweilin Incident”. China‘s Wings: War, Intrigue, Romance and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom during the Golden Age of Flight. Bantam Books. pp. 172-189